Bangor school leaders and teachers are taking a hard look at their school culture successes and shortcomings with the goal of making the learning environment more inclusive and equitable for all students.
It’s the first step the department is taking after research by the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development showed some Bangor students experience school differently based on their gender, race, socioeconomic status and if they require additional academic support.
Teachers and principals from each Bangor school reviewed UMaine’s research results on March 17 and set improvement goals based on the needs of their communities, Superintendent James Tager said. This work will continue throughout the rest of the academic year and summer and could lead to anything from changes in curriculum to new policies.
The department’s self-examination into policies and practices comes after students reported how they experienced racism in Bangor schools.
“What I’m hearing from principals and teachers is that they feel they have had some good, hard and honest conversations about the practices we’re doing … what we’re missing and how to do better to reach more of our students,” Tager said. “It’s ongoing work and I think it needs to be constant if we’re going to make a difference.”
The survey and research, which aimed to reveal disparities among students and educators of different backgrounds, was one of several recommendations the school department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee presented to the school board in May 2022.
The 40-member advisory committee formed in 2020 after several Black students reported experiencing racism at Bangor High School. Their reports, which an outside investigation later confirmed, included white students calling them the N-word and defending slavery and white supremacy in class discussions.
The results, which were presented to the school board on March 22, included data schools gather during a standard school year, said Brian Bannen, Fourteenth Street School principal and the department’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act liaison. That data cover students’ academic achievement, attendance records, disciplinary history and access to accelerated courses and extracurriculars.
While the data showed Bangor schools foster a rigorous academic culture, UMaine also found some students experience school differently based on their gender, socioeconomic status and if they require additional academic support, said Ian Mette, director of UMaine’s School of Educational Leadership, Higher Education and Human Development in the College of Education and Human Development.
UMaine also recommended the department consider and address why male students are punished at significantly higher rates than female students, Mette said.
The research also found students who receive free and reduced-price lunch achieve less, are punished more, are absent more, have less access to gifted and talented classes and participate less in after-school activities compared with full-price lunch students, Mette said.
Similarly, students with individualized learning plans achieve less, are punished more, are absent more, and have less access to gifted and talented classes than students who do not have an individualized learning plan or 504 plan, Mette said.
Individualized learning plans and 504 plans both provide accommodations for students who have a physical or mental disability of any kind, such as dyslexia, ADHD or are hard of hearing.
The second part of UMaine’s equity research included a survey with questions covering six topics: physical environment, student interactions, discipline, learning and assessment, attitude and culture and community relations. Bangor students, teachers and parents completed the survey.
While parents seemed to have positive opinions of Bangor schools, UMaine found people of color were significantly less positive than white people about most of the six topics the survey covered, according to the report.
UMaine also found different groups of teachers have different perceptions about culture within the schools.
School board member Imke Jandreau said she hopes improvements the school department makes bleed into how the larger Bangor community views and speaks about different neighborhoods.
She said students hear negative comments from adults, which lead them to believe they don’t live in the right neighborhood or home that’s needed to be academically successful.
“We’d like to think those conversations don’t happen, but I stand in the parent pick-up line and you hear kids talking about where they live and what their housing situation is like and it does affect their mental health, well-being and how confident they are when they come to school,” Jandreau said.
Mette also recommended the department set goals for improvement and revisit their progress every few years to ensure they’re meeting those benchmarks.
Tager said the school board will likely review the department’s 10-year plan and adjust it to reflect how the department plans to give all students an equitable learning experience, regardless of race, gender or class.
School board Chair Marwa Hassanien said the board will also revisit the data and discuss next steps during its retreat in May.
While school board members acknowledged there’s work to be done to make schools a more equitable place, they also applauded the department’s courage to examine what’s wrong and what needs to improve.
“There’s not a school district in the state that doesn’t have issues with class and race,” board member Ben Sprague said Wednesday. “The difference with Bangor is we’re looking at it head-on in ways that will be meaningful to help those in less fortunate circumstances or who may have challenges others don’t to achieve the best results possible.”